A new book by filmmaker and journalist Rory O’Connor–Friends, Followers and the Future: How Social Media are Changing Politics, Threatening Big Brands, and Killing Traditional Media (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2012)–has helped me to better understand the impact of digital information and social networking as well as any book I’ve read in 2012. It is, to my thinking, an important book. It is current in its analysis. (This means that within a few years most of what is said will be completely outdated!) O’Connor’s thesis is simple: “There’s a revolution going on, as ever-accelerating developments in Internet technology change nearly every aspect of how we live, work, play, do business, and engage in politics” (cover text). I would add, for good measure, that these changes clearly impact faith, and sharing our faith publicly, whether we like it or not. As much as Gutenberg’s press changed the Christian mission in the sixteenth century so now the Internet, and the more recent rise of social media with it, are impacting the way people experience faith and understand our world.

Growing networks of ordinary people are using powerful new tools to challenge the influence once held by big business, big government and big media. All of this means that the church will be forced to understand what this development really means if we are to reach people and properly nuance our message to the rising younger generation, a generation that does not accept something because “older” legacy institutions tell them it is true. We are no longer passive consumers, we are participants in a growing social network. Even a growing number of baby boomers are using this vast array of social media options to connect and build growing friendships.

How is the social media actually transforming our world? What are the trends that we should be aware of and why do these matter? What will all of this mean for legacy [older] ministries, missions and denominations? How will real visionaries impact the future now that they have the means to quickly and inexpensively reach multitudes in minutes, hours or just a few days? The answers are much bigger than the Internet itself. Most seem to think the Internet is simply a “new way to communicate.” It is so much more. It is a whole new way to build and grow social networks and friendships. This is one major reason why advertising and marketing have taken a back seat to public relations. What you are matters much more than how you sell yourself or promote your institution. How people know about you and what they know really does matter. Are you trustworthy? Does your message connect with people? Why or why not?

Mark Lukasiewicz, an executive at NBC News, says “The brand that increasingly matters is the one called ‘my friend’.” I have found this to be the most exciting reality I’ve encounter in using this new social context for Christ-honoring purposes.

The word “friend” may not fit rightly for those who read your posts on Facebook but it describes something that is happening to how we relate to people as never before. B. J. Fogg, a Stanford University professor, adds, “More and more we will be looking at our Facebook feed to see what friends have posted. That will be how we queue up what is important and credible.”

In this new age the dawning of media abundance is no longer limited to a “priesthood of professionals” (15). “As network technologies proliferate, new methods of creating content and new channels to distribute it have become available to everyone and between everyone” (15). With power no longer limited to legacy [or once trusted] media brands old methods simply do not work as they did as recently as ten years ago. Push this out a few more decades and you get the picture.

Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are the most powerful tools at the moment. This could change very quickly but there is one thing certain about all of this social media transformation–it is real and we are not going back to the old world. The future looks very different from the past, even the recent past.